Photography, Travel and Ethics

[This is a guest post written by Savannah Dodd.  If you would like to write a guest post in future, we’d love to hear from you.]

Two years ago, I was walking by the harbour in Hoi An when I saw a tourist taking a photograph of a Vietnamese rower in her boat. The man with the camera kept trying to signal to the rower how he wanted her to pose. The rower kept trying to wave him off and turn away from the camera. Unable to speak either of their languages and embarrassed by the situation, I turned away and left them to figure it out.


Hoi An Harbour, Photo (c) Savannah Dodd

At the time, I was furious with the tourist because he was being pushy by not respecting her wish to be left alone. But now when I think back on their interaction, I wonder if he just wasn’t reading the signs. I still believe that he was in the wrong, but I don’t think it was necessarily intentional. I think he just completely lacked ethical awareness.

A lot of the examples we see of “bad ethics” in photography come from a lack of ethical awareness, rather than from malice or sheer disrespect. Broadly speaking, when people come to understand that their actions are unacceptable or unethical, they stop acting in that way. This is good news because it means that increasing ethical awareness can have a real impact toward a more ethical photography practice.

This has been my mission for the past two years: to raise awareness about photography ethics in order to catalyse a shift toward a more ethical practice across the photography industry and around the world. That’s why I founded the Photography Ethics Centre.


Like any new venture, the Photography Ethics Centre started as an idea and went through many iterations. In fact, it didn’t even start as a “thing” but as a topic of discussion; whenever I found myself in the same room as another photographer, I would jump headfirst into ethical questions. Soon, I realized that this was not the best way to make friends, so I decided to take a more formal approach by organizing workshops to talk about ethics with other photographers. In those early days, before we even had a name, I facilitated two workshops in Chiang Mai, Thailand and Hanoi, Vietnam.

The discussions that took place at those early workshops were stimulating. People spoke about ethics with such passion, yet it was clear that there was a very real gap in how to apply personal ethics to photographic practice. I was excited, but daunted, to tackle this issue. I knew that I was biting off more than I could chew. How could I tackle such a pervasive and global problem? I knew that I would never be able to cover enough ground to even make a dent in it.

The solution, I decided, is online training.

So, last December I founded the Photography Ethics Centre and I set to work writing a curriculum in photography ethics. Nine months later, I’m thrilled to unveil our very first online training programme: The Photographer’s Ethical Toolkit.


This course is designed to be a first step in understanding photography ethics. It provides a broad overview of key ethical principles, and applies to anyone who regularly takes or shares photographs. Best of all, we are offering it free to everyone, worldwide.

Of course, online training alone cannot replicate the kind of learning that happens in a classroom. This was something I realized very early on in those first workshops. Discussion is the key element that makes this training work. That is why we are complimenting it with discussion forums, live video chats, and peer-to-peer interaction.

Our first live video chat will take place on Friday, October 12th. It will be hosted on Facebook by the Thomson Foundation, and it will be open for anyone to join to learn more about photography ethics.

Now, you might be asking yourself: “I’m not a photographer, so what does this have to do with me?” Inspired by Peter’s forthcoming book, you might decide to book a trip! And what will your whole family say? “Take pictures!”

Travel photography is an amazing way to share your journey with friends and family, but it has its own set of ethical considerations. How can you ask permission to photograph someone when you don’t speak the same language? How can you gauge when it is not culturally appropriate to photograph someone or something?

When we are photographing people from other backgrounds and cultures, we find that ethics isn’t always as straightforward as applying the “Golden Rule” – just because I might be comfortable having my picture taken doesn’t mean that everyone is. There are many factors that we might need to consider, including socio-cultural differences and historical context.

Our basic training does not get into all of the ins and outs of ethics in travel photography, but it’s a good start toward increased understanding of how to apply core ethical beliefs to photographic practice.

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